A straightforward gig review would not reveal much about last night’s experience. It would be peppered with comments about Beth Orton’s nice songs, make the odd reference to her lamentably croaky voice and mention the varied collection of musicians who played their parts like a well-mannered bunch of undertakers. But that’s not the whole story, because one way and another, we all started to feel a bit sorry for Beth.
The Royal Festival Hall is beautiful, with its sleek modernist curves, but it’s a big space to fill. And the audience get allocated seats. Sometimes they stand up when the main act comes on stage, but last night it seems we didn’t have the energy. We weren’t meaning to be rude, it was just so comfortable to stay sitting. ‘Thanks for coming out tonight’ said Beth, quietly, as though we had just arrived at the Parish Council AGM.
On a Wednesday night, it’s true that many members of the middle aged audience had probably had a hard day at work. Beth too seemed a bit tired. She offered no banter, no stories, no explanation of how the songs came to be written. She said this was the last night of the UK tour, and commented that the venue was nice and clean, for a change, and noted that she’d had her hair done. We laughed in a friendly way.
After all, not everyone can do banter, in fact surprisingly few musicians seem to have any sort of stage presence these days. So we politely clapped after each song, like a classical music audience might, and let her concentrate on making music.
Some of her numbers are quite raunchy and upbeat, some are beautiful and haunting. Some are just a tiny bit dull, and there was a section in middle of the concert where I thought it would be nicer to sit at home and listen to the CD with a glass of wine in my hand, rather than sustain pins and needles by sitting so very still in a concert hall.
Then Beth decided she had nothing to lose by telling us that her favourite guitar had been stolen during the tour and moaned ‘it’s not easy, you come up here and try and play without your favourite guitar’. Bad luck Beth. Perhaps this would explain her subdued air and lack of repartee.
But the crowd only started to demonstrate its sympathy when she actually asked for help. ‘You know I am really struggling’ she said towards the end ‘to work out if you are actually enjoying yourselves at all’. The effect was instantaneous. Beth was so desperately unhappy at the way the gig was turning out, that she actually needed and was prepared to ask for a show of support. We all cheered and clapped.
‘Tell us a joke’ shouted someone, but she couldn’t. ‘I told my only joke the last time I came to London and I’m not telling it again’ she pleaded. The double bass player came to her rescue with the one about the skeleton who goes into the bar and asks for a pint of beer and a mop.
For the last twenty minutes, there was louder cheering and more whistling after each song. Partly because the music picked up a bit, though Beth’s voice actually got worse. At one point she turned to her musicians and mouthed ‘I can’t do it’ when her voice failed spectacularly in the early part of a long song, knowing that she would have to try and hit those high notes several times more.
But by now the audience was really getting into Compassion. As Beth found things getting tougher and tougher, the audience started to cheer louder and louder. We did not want to feel she had been a failure, as really many of her songs are good and she is clearly a nice person with a sense of humour that should be allowed out more often.
The audience saved the day, but the fact remains that people do not go to a gig purely to hear the music. They go because they want to meet the music makers, to see them in person and feel connected with them. This is what makes a gig, what transforms it from a collection of songs into a treasured experience.
This was a different kind of connecting. What we experienced, along with the music, was our own ability to help out. A memorable experience, yes, just not the one we were expecting.
Photo: Beth Orton by Jo Metson Scot